Southwest Adventures 2019 – Day 1

After such a wet summer, we grew very quickly disgusted by the bleakness of this winter season. Rich and I had talked a few times over the holidays about planning another trip to the Southwest, but we hadn’t made any arrangements. One January morning, I’d had enough of the darkness, cold and wind, and decided to investigate the available flights for some dates in March. Within a few hours, we had most of the trip planned out!

Our departure date was set for March 19—early enough to miss plenty of a Northeastern winter’s ugliness, but not so early that we would risk running into winter weather in Arizona too! We would spend the first week in Tucson, followed by three nights in Ajo. We were still debating whether to add more time in Ajo or visit Phoenix again, when we came across a YouTube presentation about a new cactus species that was recently discovered in Joshua Tree National Park. To my surprise, Rich began investigating whether we could fit a quick survey trip to Joshua Tree into the last few days of our vacation. Of course I was on board, and we decided to go for it!

Well, today is March 19. We were so ready for some warmth and sunshine when Dad picked us up for our early morning flight. Turns out that 4:30am was perfect timing to arrive at the airport and make our way through the unusually long security lines for our 6:45am flight to Charlotte.

This was my first time flying with a laptop, and I obediently removed it from my backpack well ahead of time (as usual, needing about eight arms to juggle all of the various documents, bins, bags, and items of clothing that need to be removed)—only to learn that they also wanted me to dig out my tablet from my bag as well. I don’t recall having to do this in the past. It may be a new rule, or due to the fact that we had TSA PreCheck in the past but did not have it today. Aside from that gaffe and the fact that something that must have looked suspicious near Rich’s ankle earned him a TSA pat-down, it went smoothly enough, and we were on our way.

Our first flight was comfortable with a surprising amount of legroom on a Canadair regional jet, and we landed in Charlotte right on time around 8:35am. We had about a mile-long walk to the gate for our next flight. It’s a good thing I avoid short connection times, especially in Charlotte! This time we had a pretty long wait to board our next flight (at 10:45am), but for me, that’s still preferable to the stress of short connections and possible missed flights. At least it gave us plenty of time to read up on Joshua Tree, use the facilities, and watch the characters around us.

The gate filled up pretty quickly. Sitting across from us was an older woman with her husband and adult son (clearly, because he had exactly the same facial features as the husband, just younger). I’m not sure what their situation was but they apparently had been assigned seats that were in the same row, but alternating, so other people would be sitting in between them. The woman had to approach the gate agent twice for reassignment but eventually she returned triumphant—they had been reassigned three seats together, and I could see from their boarding passes that they were seats 34D, E and F, ten rows behind our seats and on the other side. (More on this later.)

We had boarded relatively early and we were still waiting for the third person in our row, the one who would have the window seat and would have to squeeze past us (no legroom on this flight!). As I watched the parade of characters coming down the aisle, I kept thinking “No, not that one … oh no I hope not,” and so forth. We ended up with just about the best possible person—a tiny, quiet woman who barely moved. She didn’t even get up once to use the bathroom, and just read and did Sudoku puzzles the entire time. (And ordered wine, fruit and cheese from the snack cart! We ordered nothing and made due with cold Library pizza and Biscoffs lovingly provided by the airline.)

Toward the end of our flight we learned that the woman was on her way home to St. George, Utah. Like everyone else, she highly recommends that we visit Zion and Bryce for hiking, and was sure we would enjoy our time in Arizona and Joshua Tree. Cool! (I have to admit that we initially were calling her “giraffe lady” because for some reason she looked just like a giraffe nibbling leaves from the tops of the trees when she was eating her fruit and cheese.) But there’s nothing wrong with giraffes!

At some point during the flight we sensed a commotion behind us, and the flight attendants called for a doctor. A woman sitting behind us had been up and down from her seat a few times, we assumed to the bathroom and apparently without incident, but suddenly she was short of breath or having chest pains or something (it wasn’t clear). There was a doctor on board and he came to check on her; meanwhile the flight attendants called for the woman’s husband, who came from the front of the plane. He looked familiar, and I turned to see that it was the same woman we had noticed at the gate! I have no idea what happened here, but apparently the woman and her son were actually sitting in the row behind us, and the husband was seated up in first class … and none of them were in the seats they had been so desperate to get! I still can’t figure it out. After several checks and some monitoring by the doctor, the woman seemed stable and hopefully she is doing just fine.

In Phoenix it took a l-o-n-g time to retrieve our bags, much longer than usual. We had to move twice to different baggage carousels, experiencing pandemonium at each one. When the bags did come out, they emerged very slowly, like there was one guy loading up the bags from seven planes, and he was taking smoke breaks every 5 minutes. But after an inordinate amount of golf clubs passed by, our bags appeared, and they were likely some of the first from our plane, so no real complaints.

Rental cars were SUPER expensive this time. We couldn’t figure it out, but when we were reserving ahead of time the prices were over $1300 just for a standard-size sedan. Turns out midsized SUVs were actually a little cheaper and are better for driving in the desert anyway, so that’s what we got. We ended up with a Hyundai Tucson (appropriately). We would’ve preferred the Nissan or a Toyota, but we didn’t want a dark vehicle, and the Hyundai was the only white vehicle available at the time. After all that, we were off into the sunshine!

It’s a relatively easy drive south on I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson, especially once you escape the heavy traffic of the city. We were so hungry and THIRSTY that we decided to go right downtown to eat before heading to the hotel. Without the energy to search for anything new, we headed straight for one of our old favorites, El Charro on North Court Avenue.

The restaurant was already busy by 4:30pm when we arrived but a nice table by the front window was available and we were happy to take it. Despite the fact that El Charro is always busy, the atmosphere is pretty low-key and relaxing. Other than the table of shockingly loud elderly people next to us (snowbirds? Yikes!) it was a very pleasant meal that I devoured more quickly than I usually would feel comfortable with. But I was so hungry, and Rich felt the same.

As I mentioned, we were feeling dehydrated from the travel, and downed at least a full glass of water before our beers arrived. Rich had El Charro’s featured 95th Anniversary Ale, which wasn’t his favorite (it just didn’t have a lot of flavor, he said) and I had Dragoon IPA. Out came the chips and salsa, which were like manna from heaven at this point. The salsa is slightly spicy and thinner than what we’re used to, but delicious. The chips are nice and toasty with little brown charred spots—I love that! Rich ordered the Carne Seca enchilada with green sauce, which I’ve had before and highly recommended. and I had “Enchiladas del Rancho” filled with carnitas, with roasted green chile crema and queso on top. Everything was truly excellent, and somehow we both managed to eat every bite, and too quickly! Even in our exhausted state we fully enjoyed the food, drink and conversation. We didn’t, however, have enough energy in us for a walk downtown to look for the benchmarks near the courthouse—we’ll have to save them for another day.

We found this pot full of Echinocereus next to the restaurant!
We found this pot full of Echinocereus next to the restaurant!

It was just a short drive to our hotel, Hotel McCoy, and we arrived there right around 6:00pm. I should probably explain how we ended up here! We had initially reserved a room at America’s Best Value Inn in South Tucson, where we’ve stayed several times in the past without any problems. During the past year they were bought by a larger hotel company, and I had nothing but problems trying to reserve a room through their website. (In fact, it never worked and I had to call to reserve.) Anyway, just a few days ago, I thought I would check the website again and make sure I could access our reservation in case we needed to make a change or had a problem once we arrived. I found that I still couldn’t access my reservation—not a good sign. I took a quick look at recent reviews and was horrified to read about bedbugs and shady characters hanging around in the parking lot, problems that had not existed under the old ownership. I very quickly decided to see if we could find a better place in town to stay!

A new motel, “Hotel McCoy,” came up in my search with high ratings, and their gorgeous website was a promising sign. They had one room left for our dates, and without much hesitation we grabbed it, and canceled the reservation (over the phone) at the Best Value Inn.

Turns out it was very well worth the switch! The Hotel McCoy is amazing. It’s a mid century motel that had fallen into disrepair but was just bought and renovated by a group of young people who seem very passionate about turning it into a retro “art” hotel. We could tell immediately that everything was clean and fresh and cared-for, and that we would be in good hands.

Our room was large, with a king size bed and kitchenette. We couldn’t begin to appreciate much of anything by this point, though, other than the bed! We collapsed and napped for a little while, and then headed over to the lobby/bar for another beer. I was so thirsty I really needed it! We watched the last 15 minutes of “another exciting episode of Oak Island” before collapsing in bed for real this time.

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